‘It’s about longevity as a human’ – Boxer’s safety message packs a punch

Sam Rapira.

Former champion boxer Sam Rapira is living with a form of dementia. Photo: Robin Martin / RNZ

Champion boxer Sam Rapira has revealed for the first time publicly he is living with dementia pugilistica – a variant of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE brought on by repeated concussions.

A light heavyweight, the Taranaki boxer won national, Oceania and Asia Pacific titles before hanging up his gloves in 2018.

He fought for eight years as an amateur before contesting 20 professional bouts over a five-year period.

The 39-year-old said he began to experience CTE symptoms before he stepped out of the ring for the last time.

“Since ending my career and even before finishing my career I’ve had some effects from multiple concussions over the years, so I do get memory lapses and I can be forgetful and I’ve had to set up some systems where I have to work a lot harder to remember things and I’m just dealing with that as good as I can.”

He is now urging people taking part in combat sports to use the best protective equipment available.

Rapira said a grant from the Mars Wrigley Foundation and New Zealand Dental Association to get dentist-fitted mouthguards made for young fighters at his Box Office gym had prompted him to speak up.

He said early in his career he used off-the-shelf mouthguards.

“I just bought a cheap mouthguard from a cheap store, but when I turned professional I got a dentist-fitted mouthguard which was better and during my [professional] career I found out why it was much better and I definitely encourage people to be using a good mouthguard.”

Jake Rapira

Boxing trainer Jake Rapira said good mouthguards are critical in boxing. Photo: Robin Martin / RNZ

Boxing trainer Jake Rapira is Sam’s brother and business partner at Box Office.

He believed dentist-fitted mouthguards can help to reduce concussions.

“It is really important to have the right type of mouthguard just because when you are biting down on them and it locks up your jaw you’re less likely to have your head rattled around because your neck is tensed up and it will stabilise you a lot better.”

Jake Rapira said cheap mouthguards could also fall out, leaving a boxer vulnerable to serious injury.

Fighters in action at the Box Office gym.

Boxers train at Box Office gym. Photo: Robin Martin / RNZ

Dr Andrea Kelsen is a dental specialist with Te Whatu Ora Taranaki.

She organised the $5000 grant to have fitted mouthguards, which could cost up to $300, made for the Box Office fighters.

“They are definitely more expensive and can be inaccessible to some of these athletes, but they reduce the likelihood of trauma to the dental soft and hard tissues.”

Dr Kelsen said, although it was not her area of expertise, there was some evidence fitted mouthguards could reduce concussion.

The grant package also included general dental hygiene and care support for the fighters.

Kalani Marra, who has just returned from the world championships in Spain, was one of the boxers to benefit from the grant.

The 18-year-old appreciated the difference.

Kalani Marra

Boxer Kalani Marra said he felt ‘safer’ with a new mouthguard. Photo: Robin Martin / RNZ

“I noticed the difference when I had it, how secure it was, when I got hit sometimes. Taking a shot you can kind of feel it, but with this one here it was so compact, so tight it felt normal and there was no movement there and I felt safer having it in my mouth.”

He had thought about the implications of getting too many head knocks.

“Obviously, as a boxer I’m trying to stay as pretty as I can for as long as I can, right? So, keeping my teeth is an important part.

“One of my main things is – I love boxing – but I want to be as safe as possible so the aim of the game is to hit and not get hit and that is what I try my best to do.”

Meanwhile Sam Rapira, who said he had no regrets and still loved boxing, was working with the young fighters to help them avoid the pitfalls of the sport.

“I’m trying to make them to get out of the way of the punch rather than eat the punch.

“Like it’s not just about points, it’s about longevity as a human so I think what I tell them resonates with them because they can see I’ve had negative effects and I’m trying help them learn from them as well.”

In 2020, ACC accepted 1883 dental injury claims.

So far this year, 757 boxing-related concussion claims have been lodged.

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